A sermon on Hebrews 9. 24-28 & Mark 12. 38-44 by Garry Deverell, 9 November 2003
In the Four Quartets T.S. Eliot wrote this:
. . . In order to arrive there,
to arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You need to go by a way in which there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
There is a revolution from God, an impossible turning in which the very worst that may visit us in life is able to reconfigure itself as the very best. It is a revolution that resists explanation or representation. It happens in our experience. We know that it happens, and we can recognise it when it happens to others. But we struggle to understand or tell it, to name its dark contours even for ourselves. To my mind, the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus is our best telling of this revolution. Best because here the story unfolds from our lips, from the lips of the church, and yet it does not come from us. We hear it, first of all, from God. What we confess with our lips and know in our hearts begins not with our own hearts, but with an event that happens in the heart of God.
The gospel story of the widow who gave all she had, all she had to live on, is a version of that telling. Although we have it here, in Mark, as a story about discipleship, an allegory and example for us of what a disciple of Jesus would do, an earlier form of the story (possibly that found in the Gospel of Thomas) would probably have cast the woman as a symbol not of the disciple, first of all, but of God. On the lips of Jesus, the womans willingness to part with everything that she has to live on would then have had a pre-eminently theological meaning: that it is God who loses everything in his encounter with human beings. Even here in Marks version, the traces of that shocking truth are visible. Consider, if you will, what has happened in the story so far. In chapter 1 we read that Jesus had come to inaugurate a kingdom, the kingdom of God. In chapters 2 through 7 we read stories about the signs of that kingdoms arrival: the preaching of good news, healings, exorcisms, and (not least) the shattering of human traditions about what is right and what is wrong. In chapters 8 & 10, Jesus tells his disciples that salvation comes only for the one who is willing to die, to be baptised into death, to become the slave of all. Also in chapter 10, in what I believe to be the key utterance of the gospel, Jesus declares that salvation, while impossible for human beings, is indeed possible for God. Can you see where Mark is leading us with that story-line? To suffering and to crucifixion, as a direct and necessary consequence of Gods encounter with human beings. But also to the revolution revealed there, that strange turning in which death becomes life, poverty becomes riches, and the loss of self the key to a newly made identity that God gives freely. So what Mark is trying to tell us in this stark story about a widow who gives away even the little she has, is nothing other than what he is telling us in the gospel as a whole. That one can never be saved from lifes cruelties unless one is willing to confess and acknowledge ones own involvement in the system that perpetuates those cruelties, giving oneself over, instead, to a different logic, the logic of God which is called by the beautiful name of grace.
What I mean is this. For Mark and indeed for Paul who wrote before him there are two powers or logics in the world: the power of religion or karma, and the power of the gospel or of grace. In Marks world, as in ours, it was the power of karma that appeared to reign supreme. Karma is the power of necessity, you know, the compulsion we feel to get ahead ahead by paying our dues, working hard, and keeping our patrons happy. Of course, we would not feel such compulsion unless we believed in karma ourselves, if we did not want to get ahead, if we were not invested the very system that enslaves us because we believe it will reward us. Yet this is where most of us are. Compelled, entranced, invested. Yet, the karmic system can only every lead us to despair, for it condemns us to reap only what we sow. It is like capitalism, which delivers to us only what we produce ourselves images of the real, but not the real itself. The real eludes us, for we are not God. We cannot create even ourselves, let alone what we need for happiness or peace! This widow of Israel, for example, was probably caught in a double-bind, a circle of despair with no exit. Like all good Jews, she longed to be part of the people of the redeemed, those who were acceptable to God because they obeyed the priestly law. Yet, she wanted to survive as well, to live. When her male patrons died or put her aside, she had to turn to activities condemned by the law in order to feed herself and her children to prostitution or stealing or slavery in the houses of idolaters. The only way to achieve both ends, to stay alive and ritually pure at the same time, was to accept a form of moral blackmail, to pay the priestly caste a large portion of her ill-gotten earnings in return for their acceptance and protection. Unfortunately, her willingness to do so kept her in a state of perpetual want and need. It also perpetuated and repeated the very system that oppressed her, so that nothing was able to change. She reaped what she sowed, her poverty and need created nothing but more poverty and more need.
Thank God there is another power in the world, the power of grace. Grace, as I have been telling you for some time now, is the opposite of karma or religion or myth. It is like the blessing of children of which the Psalmist speaks. Children cannot be produced by the machinations of our human longings, needs or planning. They are not a reward for our labour or a right to be possessed. Children come, as many of you know very well, as a sheer gift from God, without reason or foretelling. Children are therefore signs to us of grace, that condition of blessedness and peace which comes not from ourselves but from somewhere other, from God. Grace is that which comes to question, to interrupt, to displace and even destroy the cycle of despair which is karma. With the gift of grace, we reap what we have not sown, and live in the power of that which we have not produced or made for ourselves. In grace we experience the love of God shown in Christs self-sacrifice. In Christ, God is totally for us, even to the point of so identifying with us in our karmic cycle of despair that he suffered the full consequence of what that cycle produces: nothingness, and only nothingness.
Of course, having given itself over to nothingness and to death, grace is not exhausted. It rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes of its own destruction, and proceeds to infect the karmic system like a virus which cannot be quashed. In the gospel story, this power or property is called resurrection. It is the perseverance of love in the face of death and despair, the never-depleted surplus of possibility over necessity. In Marks world, the widows of Israel were forever caught in a web of karmic despair. In trying to escape its demands they succeeded only in fulfilling its demands. Not so, we are told, with the widow who gave her all, all she had to live on. In the context of the gospel as a whole, we must understand this act evangelically, that is, as a picture or metaphor of salvation. As for Christ himself, and for all who follow his way of the cross, it is only by finally allowing the system to have what it seeks our very lives that we shall find ourselves free of its determinations. For while she, and we who are Christs, indeed give our lives daily to the system we inhabit, that system does not thereby possess us. For we are Christs, and our truest selves are hidden with Christ in God, as the apostle says. Therefore we are being freed from the desire to get ahead, to succeed in terms determined by the law of karma. We are people who know a love which is stronger even than death, and the gift of a life and future we have not produced. Therefore we choose, over and over again, in all the minutiae of life, to serve our neighbour without thought of the the cost or ego. For the price is already payed. What can karma take from us that Christ has not already given?
You should all go and see what Hollywood is doing these days. A system of karmic despair if ever there was one, it has nevertheless been infected with the virus of grace. The new Matrix movie is called Revolutions, the third volume in a three-fold re-telling of the gospel as I have proclaimed it today. In that story, it is at the precise moment when the new Son of Man, Neo Anderson, gives himself over to the power of karmic inevitability, that the revolution begins. As he lies crucified upon the power of the machines, absorbed, it seems, into the power of the same old thing, a miracle begins to happen. What was absorbed begins to absorb. What was dead now begins to infect the whole system with life. What had been given away now returns more powerfully to inhabit all the world, bringing light and life and peace where once there was only darkness, death and enmity. So it can be for us. Jesus promises that if we will face our deepest fear the loss of our very souls and if we will trust in his love, then we shall live, even though we die. In my end is my beginning, wrote T.S. Eliot. Let us give thanks that it is so.